Friday, 27 February 2009

Death Valley 2

We stop for lunch at Furnace Creek where the gift shop sells pawn jewellery (genuine Native American turquoise and silverwork that they have pawned to spend up large at the casino probably), kids’ books about spiders, snakes and lizards, and cute cuddly tarantulas.

I have a mesquite salad (smoked chicken, toasted pecans, salad greens, red onion and mandarin slices with lime and cilantro dressing) while Him Outdoors chooses a taco salad. This collection of beans, chicken, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, olives, guacamole and sour cream in a big taco shell is a sort of Mexican equivalent of a giant Yorkshire pudding.

The wind has died down but the sun is still relentless as we press on for a stroll along the boardwalk at salt creek, looking for pupfish (so called because they ‘play like puppies’). These amazing creatures have adapted to changing climactic conditions and can live in springs as warm as 30°C and in streams whose water can be five times as salty as the ocean. There aren’t any fish and we can’t see any water, but there must be some moisture as there is plenty of pickleweed, introducing rare greenery to the park.

Mosaic Canyon has beautiful marble-like slides on one side and rocks popping out of rubble like polished concrete on the other. The late afternoon sun casts shadows and patterns on the sand dunes. The temperature plummets as the sun dips behind the hills, and the reds, pinks, yellows and golds give way to browns, greys, purples and blues. The full moon appears ghostly in the sky above the Cottonwood Mountains; the coyotes will have something to howl at tonight.

We leave Death Valley behind. It got its name in 1849 when the California Gold Rush lured short-cut-seeking wagon parties through here. Only one wagon made it out, and one of their party died in the valley. Another member of the party turned and said, ‘Goodbye Death Valley’ and the name stuck.

The muted pinks of Panamint Valley are cool and gentle in the twilight. The moon rises high and the stars begin to come out; there are still no clouds to block the sky. It is pierced only by the silhouettes of the Joshua trees on the horizon, like Injuns creeping over the crest of the hill.

If the creationists are right, then Death Valley must be either a mistake or a hoax. It is as though the maker was going through an experimental phase and here is his waste basket into which he threw everything that didn’t quite work.

Perhaps this was the ‘difficult second’ for which he grew his hair, took some mind expanding drugs and produced a concept album in a gatefold sleeve, which he called Death Valley. And he saw that it was distinctly odd.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Death Valley 1

As if America isn’t weird enough, it has Death Valley, where visitors to the park are greeted by coyotes and massive ravens. Joshua trees pockmark the scenery and the sun picks out the contours and the ripples on the sand dunes. There are fantastic colours in the rocks – who would have thought it could be so brutally beautiful?

Apparently a lot of car companies come here to test drive new vehicles. There is no test track as such, but the varied terrain and dramatic change in temperature and altitude are perfect to try out engines and breaks.

Mt Whitney, the highest point in ‘the lower 48 states’ is less than 100 miles from Badwater Basin – elevation -282feet and the lowest point in North America. The temperature changes 5°C for every 1,000 feet, and there are three ranges of approximately 10,000 feet and two valleys of searing hot temperatures within the park, which would certainly create some challenging driving conditions.

Despite it's unprepossessing facade, the Ensenada Grill does a good breakfast. The cheerful, sunny roadside diner has Mexican music and jolly toothless staff. The décor may be basic (plastic covers over yellow tablecloths and woven red and green tablemats) but the food is good. We both have Ensenada skillets – Him Outdoors has one with ham, bacon and chorizo sausage, while my vegetarian version has peppers, mushrooms, broccoli, potatoes, onions and tomatoes.

Him Outdoors chooses tortillas and I have biscuits and gravy as my stodge – again, very basic but hearty. The gravy is a cracked pepper white sauce. Both are accompanied with homemade salsa and endless cups of black filter coffee from a pot, with which the waitress just keeps filling our cups. How I love it; and how Kiwis with their precious and pretentious ‘coffee culture’ would loathe it.

The wind is ferocious at Ryolite, an old ghost town. When gold was discovered in the early 1900s, 10,000 people flocked here – three railroads and many buildings emerged, including casinos and a three-storey bank. The boom went bust as the price of gold fell through the floor and the ensuing panic ended the gold rush by 1912. Now the town is eerie with the sound of bits of bank and casino flapping and whistling in the wind, and signs by dilapidated stores caution ‘Rattlesnakes’.

In a strange sculpture park is a lego-woman. She is made from pink blocks with long blonde hair and a yellow pubic triangle. Her big pert breasts stick straight out in front at right angles and she is on her knees. Is this how pioneers thought women should look? Some men have not moved on in a hundred years.

Entering Death Valley National Park again, we cross the state line. The sign welcoming drivers to Nevada is riddled with bullet holes. The mustard coloured hills bear testament to the harvesting of borax at Harmony.

Old pictures show the mines and mule trains – this area is certainly rich in minerals and was ripe for exploitation until Congress passed the Mining in Parks Act in 1976, which restricted and regulated mining in Death Valley for the first time. The park is now closed to new mining claims, and previously established claims and mines are closely monitored.

The colours at Zabriskie Point, and indeed everywhere, must change hourly and would be worth photographing throughout the day. This is a crazy place full of geological treasures.

The National Park brochure claims, ‘The colourful and rugged terrain shouts tales of cataclysmic forces that thrust thick rock layers upwards and of opposing erosional forces battling to tear them down. Desert winds whisper romances of the past – of the ’49ers lured by the glitter of gold and of Chinese labourers scraping borax-rich crystals from the valley floor.'

From Dante’s View, the mineral deposits in the mountains are the colours of the Firenze cathedral’s marble walls. Rivers of salt run down the valley.

At Badwater Basin, below sea level, salt flats stretch for miles; their crusty layers look like a particularly unappetizing meringue or Kendal mint cake.

Strange miniature pinnacles dot the Devil’s Golf Course and cairns are made from slabs of salt.

The artist’s palette features mounds and bands of many hues, as though the artist has dumped all his colour and pigments into one vivid lump. The residue of the excavated minerals leaves colourful rainbows on the land.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Henry V - Band of Brothers (and Sisters)

Henry V, Summer Shakespeare
Studio 77 Amphitheatre, February 13-28

I must admit I approached the Summer Shakespeare production of Henry V with some trepidation. It is a fantastic work focussing on grand themes such as leadership and patriotism, which are frequently mocked (particularly English patriotism) in modern society. These fears were quickly dispelled, however, as director David Lawrence remains true to the passion of the play. The serious moments are tender and touching yet also stirring and powerful. There was a lump in my throat at some of the more celebrated speeches, which was entirely due to the force of direction and acting.

Lawrence ensures that all his cast flesh out their roles and from the entrance of the Archbishop of Canterbury (David Goldthorpe) and the Bishop of Ely (played with relish by James Barber) I was enthralled. Goldthorpe’s interpretation of Salic Law (which Shakespeare’s original audience would have known) to justify Henry’s claim to the French throne is expertly handled. I’m not sure if we are enlightened by the explanation, but we are certainly entertained. The cross-clutching, bible-bashing (literally) duo does a sterling job of illuminating the hazier parts of the script.

Alex Grieg as the eponymous king is fantastic. When hesitant at asking ‘May I with right and conscience make this claim’ or anguished at his betrayal by his old friends he is convincingly human. His lament that he cannot be like other men although he is the same ‘save ceremony’ is heartfelt, his prayer before the battle of Agincourt is profoundly moving, and his wooing of Katherine is utterly delightful. His flashes of temper, remorse and insecurity make him a beloved figure.

Henry is the sort of king who demands respect, loyalty and devotion. His battle speeches are formidable and he shows his leadership in myriad ways – granting mercy where it is due – yet he is not afraid to strike through the hearts of the ‘nest of hollow bosoms’. He forgives drunkenness but not treason. Greig embodies the king versus man dichotomy brilliantly when he personally has an old drinking buddy killed for disobeying orders, and he is fierce in his protection and respect of the defeated French, ‘for when lenity and cruelty play for a kingdom, the gentler gamester is the soonest winner’.

But, men being as they are, not all support the king. When he prowls the camp in disguise the night before the battle in the ‘little touch of Harry in the night’ scene, he learns there are those who question his motives. Daniel Watterson as Michael Williams speaks his dissent with eloquence and bitterness. With his supposition that as the men are following the orders of the king so all death and blame will be on his head, the situation in Iraq doesn’t so much spring to mind as bludgeon the brain. While Henry’s reaction is fair and indicative of the equanimous king he will become, there is perhaps little else he can do in the circumstances.

Aside from the main focus on Harry, the ensemble work is also accomplished. The reprobate triumvirate of Nym (Jack O’Donnell), Bardolph (Benyamin Albert), and Pistol (Jackson Coe doing his best Orland-Bloom-as-Will-Turner impersonation) are oddly dressed but generally good value. None of them want to go to war although they do want to bask in its reflected glory, and there is a touching moment when they bid farewell to the excellent Nell Quickly (Ameila Willcox). Her newly-wed-and-nearly-widowed character is stronger and more noble than any of the men she sees off from the shores of Southampton to an unknown fate.

As Nym is slain, Bardolph steals, and Pistol ransacks the bodies on the battlefield, the horrors of war are clearly illustrated in counterpoint to those who claim the play is gloriously bellicose. Boy remarks upon this behaviour with the license of a Shakespearean fool, ‘I did never know so full a voice issue from so empty a heart’. Jessica Aaltonen looks cute in this role but her squeaking of the lines as though she has been ingesting helium makes her often incomprehensible.

On the subject of incomp- rehensible, I know Welsh accents are difficult at the best of times, but Christopher de Sousa Smith as Captain Fluellen sounds more like an Irishman being strangled underwater.

Fortunately he handles the comedy (including the ludicrous leek taunting scene) much better than the accent. The play also features a Scotsman and an Irishman, to show the cultural divisions in the ‘English’ camp, but they are absent from this rendition. Captain Gower is included but Bailey McCormack gets lost in the role beside the more expressive de Sousa Smith.

The French contingent is much better served, with the language excellently delivered. The women are wreathed in blue robes like the Beauxbatons from that other famous Harry of the Potter variety. The French lesson is outstanding as Louise Burston hams it up fabulously as Alice, the princess’ maid and tutor, and Alison Walls is much better as Katherine than the Chorus. Her rapid delivery, flirtatious simpering and jerky mannerisms suit the French princess far more than a pragmatic narrator.

The French men on the eve of battle are cocksure and confident, as they know they have greater numbers than the English forces. The banter between the fiery Dauphin (Alex Rabina) and the larger-than-life Constable (Allan Henry) underlines their arrogance. As they ride off to battle with lances protruding from the sunroof of their vehicle you just know there will be a big fall to follow this pride.

The battle scenes are expertly choreographed by Allan Henry who must have staged just about every fight scene on a Wellington stage over the past few years. There are blood-thirsty priests, savage sword fights and cowardly kickings meted out. At times the men stand around cheering and it is more WWF than Agincourt, and there are Matrix-like moments of humour amidst the gore. But when bodies bestrew the set and Henry confesses ‘I know not if the day be ours or no’, it is easy to understand his confusion.

The French herald, Mountjoy is played by Hannah McKie with an innate understanding of Shakespearean speech and a calm dignity that moved me to tears and shows that there are no real winners in war. Despite the undeniable humour of the wooing, there is a discordant note – history will prove that a defeated nation can never be united with its conqueror.

The large cast use this great little venue soundly, performing to all angles, although there is little they can do about the noise from the aeroplanes. Actors encircle the audience to demonstrate superior force; they flee across bridges to signify defeat; and they lounge on balconies to depict insouciance. The tents on the surrounding grass are probably used to store equipment but they look like an encampment. The car that delivers the French envoy is a good gag, but it would have been more powerful if it were a Peugeot, Citroën or a Renault rather than a Mazda with a battered headlight.

There are two things I would question and the first is the costuming. Red for the English and Blue for the French – fair enough (les rosbifs et les bleus) and it helps distinguish between the sides, especially when named characters (Boy and the Dauphin most notably) switch allegiance to swell the ranks. When Henry is alone in red at the French court, the surrounding sea of blue highlights his isolation and the fact that he is out of his depth.

But what’s with the glaringly American baseball caps and the Converse All-Star boots? Is there a subliminal advertising message here, or an oblique reference to the homogenisation of culture? There are also product placements of Coke (the red bottles infiltrate a blue chilly bin) and the Warehouse – which is hardly ubiquitous enough to merit such treatment if so. Why do only the trio of traitors (Cambridge, Northumberland and Masham) wear the archetypically British Doc Martens? Am I reading too much into this, and is it nothing more than an attempt at the Baz Luhrmann treatment? Either way, it doesn’t work.

The other quibble is the casting of women in traditionally male roles. This play has a huge cast and almost no women. Katherine, her maid, the Queen of France, and Nell Quickly are the only ones to be given lines. The rest of the play focuses on the relationships between the groups of men, all of which define different facets of Henry’s character. Mountjoy and Burgundy (Laura Feslier) are examples of how this can work, but none of the other female soldiers ring true.

On the whole this is an excellent production and very difficult to review, as each path leads down a cul-de-sac of revelations. It is a tight ensemble piece, given cohesion by a strong person in the title role. Kenneth Branagh and Laurence Olivier are tough acts to follow, but Alex Greig’s Henry V is equally charismatic and compelling – I feel I would be proud to be among his band of brothers (and sisters).

Monday, 23 February 2009

Road trip: Oakhurst - Beatty

At one extreme we have the Cuba Street Carnival on my week in images blog, and over here we have a continuation of the America travel diary. And we are heading to Death Valley...

Him Outdoors is very impressed with the American supermarket – an aisle of cereals including several types of Cheerios; individually wrapped slices of cheese; ginseng and honey in a can; self-service checkouts for clearly honest people.

We drive through infinite swathes of nothingness, questioning of flat, shimmering patches, “Is that the sea?” No, it’s Central Valley California; the fruit and nut (oh yes) producer of California. The faded and dusty American flags hang limply from pick-up truck shops – a total contrast to the bright snapping variety with their jaunty stars and forge-ahead stripes in the waterfront cities.

Boats are for sale by the driving range in Pinedale, but where’s the water, or do people sail away on a mirage of dreams? Apparently Paul Evans sells fun – if your idea of fun is a mobile home, then maybe he does.

We pass a procession of fire trucks and a cardboard city on the edge of Fresno. How can this be when the farmers’ fields are full of corn, cattle, beets and potatoes – there is food for Africa! The suburban giants are advertising hoardings sprouting up along the motorway, signalling Shell, Taco Bell, MacDonald’s, Jack in the Box, Denny’s. One sign reads, ‘People and pets, cremation urns and keepsakes’. There’s a market for everything in America – if you think of it; you can sell it.

There are stop signs at crossroads to nowhere. Delano is characterized by tattooed men in Stetsons driving pick-up trucks with tinted windows. We lock our doors and drive on through. As we approach the brown hills and distant mountains it looks like Graham Sydney country. A large black crow flaps and a wily coyote lopes away from the road kill at the dusty verge.

Many churches present
opportunities to worship along the way – there are Seven Day Adventists; Latter Day Saints; Baptists; Lighthouse Pentecostal, but none of your traditional everyday Catholics, Anglicans and Presbyterians. A forlorn sign pitched in a field of dirt reads, ‘Prayer changes things’ and a white painted cross on a brown barren hillside presides over the wasteland.

China Lake is a strange place – a naval weapons centre in the middle of the desert. There are acres of nuclear testing sites in nearby Nevada. These are represented by featureless purple blocks of shading on the map, and surrounded by a barbed wire perimeter fence in reality with a warning to keep out posted every twenty yards in case you don’t get the message.

Only two shops are in evidence – one sells ‘outdoor additions’ which appear to be gazebos, conservatories, barns and anything else that can conceivably fill the space. The other shop is the Gem and Mineral Society – a gathering of cars suggests the consumption of tacos, hot dogs and car washes offered for sale. Angus is boarded up and derelict; everything is demolished or for sale – this looks like real Mad Max stuff. Dry lakes, salt mines, deserted towns and a naval weapons centre – this really is an odd part of the country.

As the day is getting on, we drive right through Death Valley National Park. A mid-west couple (from New Mexico) tell us at the visitor centre of a ‘groovy little town’ called Beatty in Nevada, on the other side of the park, so we head there. If this is a groovy little town by their standards, I dread to think where they live. The motel we stay at has an industrial shower curtain, strange connecting doors, and a polyester bedspread in blue, orange, pink and yellow, with images of bears, flamingos, Canada geese, shells, skyscrapers, forest scenes and mountains. Still, it’s a room.

We go out to the Sourdough Saloon which we instantly rename the sour faced saloon on account of the extremely unfriendly waitress. The bar is in a horseshoe shape with high stools – there is nowhere else to sit but at the middle of this sea of Stetsons, baseball caps and cigarette smoke. Worrying that we might be sitting in a local’s seat, we order Michelob Amber Bock (the only thing we recognise other than Bud from the list the landlady barks at us). No one else drinks tap beer – it’s all bottles, spirits and Jaeger bombs. A man buys a bottle of vodka, which he wraps in a brown paper bag before leaving.

A turn-off in Beatty leads to Las Vegas, and that’s where many people are expected to go. The ceiling is papered with dollar bills from passers by. One woman swears loudly at her relatives across the bar. Another tells us she moved here two years ago from ‘the high desert in California’. She loves it here and sits out on the porch in the mornings with her coffee watching ‘the beautiful light’. She is not even deterred by the 70 mile drive once a week to Parumph to buy groceries.

The road to our hotel is lined with ammunition cases on sale – I’ve never seen such a collection and am even more disturbed by the potential market. There is a casino next to our motel and the lights flash on and off all night. It’s quite a draw card as there are no legal casinos in California (apart from on Indian land).

I watch True Blood on HBO, a series Our Gracious Hostess has recommended. It is slightly alarming that the images of vampires infiltrating society do not seem out of place in Beatty, Nevada.